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Sun shields server rooms from attack

Sun Microsystems comes up with a way to insulate computer networks from fires, floods and bomb attacks: Split up the machines and put them in different cities.

Sun Microsystems has come up with a way to insulate computer networks from fires, floods and bomb attacks: Split up the machines and put them in different cities.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based server manufacturer on Tuesday will unveil its Enterprise Continuity program, a collection of services and technology designed to prevent network failure by physically separating computers that work together in a unified cluster.

Properly installed, computers in the same cluster--running, for example, a stock trading system or conducting drug research--could be located 125 miles away from one another without increasing latency or lag time. Current fiber connections only allow computers in a cluster to be separated by six miles. Beyond that distance these computers can't function seamlessly to run the same application together.

"This allows you to pick up half your cluster and get it out of the disaster footprint," said Chris Wood, director of technology sales and marketing in Sun's storage division. "You want to move from disaster recovery to didn't stop in the first place."

Nortel Networks participated in the project and will assist Sun in implementing installations.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other events in recent years have prompted a surge of interest in physically distributed computing. The German government, for example, has passed legislation that banks geographically disperse their processing centers. Downtime caused by outages can quickly cause millions' worth of damage.

To date, companies have mostly hired disaster recovery companies to perform data retrieval or create systems that mirror ongoing operations to prevent downtime. Some companies have tried services similar to the one that Sun is selling as well.

Although not cheap, Enterprise Continuity will be less expensive compared with many traditional disaster recovery options because the active computer systems and the backup systems are the same thing. If an explosion knocks out half the cluster, the remaining half will absorb the work.

The system depends largely on an artifact of the dot-com era: dark fiber. In the late 1990s, companies planted miles of fiber-optic cable into the ground in Europe and North America. A substantial portion of it has yet to be used.

In Enterprise Continuity, customers will exclusively lease portions of this unused fiber and create a dedicated, secure link between two halves of a separated cluster. In developing the system, Sun largely worked on tuning its servers and storage systems for this sort of architecture while Nortel examined the high-speed communications issues.

"It turns out that putting distance into architectures that were originally designed to run 500 meters (500 yards) was a bigger challenge than expected," Wood said. The long-distance lasers on the market now, for instance, only reach six miles, which made them ineffective.

These systems, which will all involve custom installations, will be targeted at the largest 1,000 companies in the world. Sun has certified that its StorEdge 3900, 6900 and 9900 storage systems and the SunFire 15k server can be used in these installations.